Arctic Monkeys Conquer America: Alex Turner Q&A
Frontman Alex Turner discusses the band's Stateside stardom, moving to America and the prospect of new music
In 2014, America finally went ape for Arctic Monkeys. At home, in England, where all five of their albums have topped the charts, the four lads from Sheffield have been revered as saviors of indie rock from practically the second they picked up guitars. But it has taken eight years for the Monkeys to finally reach headliner status on this side of the pond.
The band’s 2013 album, 'AM', reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200, its highest charting yet, and single “Do I Wanna Know?” gave the group its first Billboard Hot 100 hit, peaking at No. 70 on March 8. But 'AM' still has legs months after its September release: Arctic Monkeys unleashed a music video for “Snap Out of It,” the album's sixth single — yes, sixth — on June 16, sending them to the top of our Trending 140 chart the next day. Billboard caught up with 28-year-old Alex Turner, the band’s debonair, hip-swinging frontman, to learn how the west was won.
'AM' has already given you your highest-charting album and single, and now “Snap Out of It” is making waves. Did you know this album would be so successful?
No. We were all turned on by it — we’ve never danced that way to an album playback before — but you can never tell how it’s going to be received. It’s got a reputation as the record that crossed us over in the States, but when we play it back home, those are the songs that people respond to the most as well.
You’ve been topping the charts in the U.K. for years. Does breaking big in America mean something special to you?
We’ve been knocking on the door a while. We wouldn’t have kept coming back here if we weren’t trying to move things along. But it’s been gradually building because you didn’t have the explosion of the first record (2006's ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’) the way we did back in England. And... not that we necessarily "play the game" more now, but certainly in the beginning, we said no to a lot of (promotional opportunities), trying to protect this thing that we created. We didn’t burn bridges necessarily, but we certainly didn’t do ourselves any favors during our cantankerous younger days.
There’s only a handful of songs from your first two albums that make it into the setlist now. Is it uncomfortable singing tunes you wrote when you were 17?
Well, it certainly feels like were doing a cover version to some extent. But it’s the best cover version anyone’s going to get. The thing that gave that first record its oomph was the fact that we were playing to the very limits of our abilities from the moment the album starts. All that enthusiasm and naivety cannot be replicated. You have to look for a different path to go down, and we found one. I’m glad we’ve got them songs like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” They’re good ones – and it’s a bit of a rest to not have to think so much about the fiddling around the guitar. We just kind of open it up a bit more. However, some other songs from those days we’ve tried to play more recently and it just doesn’t come off for some reason. I don’t know what that is. Some songs just have a limited shelf life.
Which ones, for example?
At Glastonbury last year, we tried to play “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” thinking it’d be this massive moment where everyone in the crowd was like yes!, and it was a bit like whatever when we played it. I think that’s when we realized things had changed a bit now. We don’t necessarily need to do so much of that old stuff. But we do need to play ‘R U Mine.’ Twice if we have to.
The band’s biggest success in the States came after you relocated to Los Angeles in 2012. Did the move affect your music?
I don’t know if I’ve got the hindsight developed yet to accurately answer that. There’s bullshit we’ve kicked around about our music having this laid-back thing to it now because of the sunshine and palm trees, but I don’t know if that’s true. One thing I’ll say is that in L.A. you spend a lot of time driving, and we wanted a record that sounds good in the car, like [50 Cent’s] “In Da Club.”
You and the band have a lot more swagger onstage than before. How did you get so suave up there?
A lot of that moving around comes from me feeling a bit awkward. I dare anyone to go out onstage and completely be yourself. Someone asked me what the key to being a good frontman was, and I think having a sense of humor about it is pretty near the top of that list. It’s a very strange place to be in, and I don’t take that role too seriously.
Well, you still have a ton of shows in 2014 coming up before you can settle down.
Lollapalooza will be mental. We did that a few years ago and had a f—ing riot. Reading and Leeds [Festivals] are always big for us. Leeds is the festival we went to as kids. We’ve played it before, but we’re more equipped to be in that headlining spot now than ever before. We’ve got a lot more tricks up our sleeves.
'AM' came out in September. Are you working on new material yet?
Not really. We’re never not writing, but I’ve certainly not been writing a great deal. We’ve had a couple ideas kicking around, but it’s very early. We’re not really thinking of making a new LP -- not for a little while, I shouldn’t think. Also, it does feel like it’d be a good time to get out of the f—ing magazines. We’ve been pretty omnipresent for a year, so it’ll be good to leave it for a minute.